I’m just a pizza guy, but I got to go to the State of the Union: Here’s what happened

Pizza My Heart owner Chuck Hammers in Washington's halls of power ahead of Tuesday's State of the Union address.
(Via Chuck Hammers)

Chuck Hammers, owner of Pizza My Heart, got an inside view of our government last week, when he sat near Jill Biden, Bono and the parents of Tyre Nichols during the State of the Union address Tuesday. Hammers’ Capitola Village restaurant sustained close to $500,000 in damages during the January storms, and he and other restaurants had visits from Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Jimmy Panetta and even President Joe Biden. Here, he gives us a peek into the “room where it happens” and his personal “Where’s Bernie” moment.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

At work, I’m jokingly known as the Big Cheese. Ask me anything you want about pizza and chances are I’ll have an opinion. But when it comes to politics, I tend to stay in the middle of most issues. So how did a pizza guy end up at Joe Biden’s latest State of the Union address? Let me tell you how I got there.

When I saw (on the security camera) a giant wave rip through Pizza My Heart in Capitola the morning of Jan. 5, I knew the village was in trouble.

By now, you’ve seen the storm damage to Pizza My Heart and others like Zelda’s, My Thai Beach and The Sand Bar. Wave after wave crashed through windows, destroyed decks and lifted the flooring from the bars and restaurants all along the Esplanade. The weeks since the storm have been exhausting, as we cleaned up the mess, assessed the damages ($2 million is my estimate right now; mine alone are around $500,000) and began repairs.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, our local representatives, and then even President Joe Biden, showed up and walked through the construction mess to see firsthand what had happened. Biden spoke to us about rebuilding efforts and lending federal support. Then beyond all belief, I was invited by Rep. Jimmy Panetta to represent storm-damaged Capitola at the State of the Union address on Feb. 7.

I found the experience almost surreal. I am not particularly political, but I do deeply care about our country and my community. I tend to be an optimist and think about what’s going right, instead of what’s going wrong. I watch the State of the Union every year on TV, but being in the room where it happens was quite the experience.

Truthfully, that room seemed much smaller than I had expected. I could easily recognize and spot most any congressperson on the floor. It started off like a game of “Where’s Bernie” for me, and then it was fun to see if I could spot the more recognizable ones like Elizabeth Warren, A.O.C. and Marjorie Taylor Greene. In the minutes before the president arrived, I was struck by how collegial the representatives and senators were with one another, even across the aisle. The atmosphere seemed much more like a reunion in a high school gym than a charged political event. The place really came alive, though, when the Supreme Court justices arrived, followed by President Biden.

The justices were shown respect by all, no matter which party had nominated them to the high court. This surprised me considering how contentious some of those hearings have been in recent years. Then, when President Biden entered, the focus of the entire room went to him. Everyone seemed to want to shake his hand or get a photo with him.

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol as Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy listen.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

I was glad Biden started off by reaching out to the other side, encouraging our leaders to work together. I also liked his theme of “Let’s finish the job.” Our country has been through a lot, and while we have recovered considerably from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have work to do.

These themes also apply to all of us in Capitola.

Though all of the restaurants in the village are essentially competitors, we are also friends, and we realize we have to work together to rebuild if any of us are to survive. Come to the village any day since the storm and you’ll see us sharing stories and resources. We often commiserate about how when we fix one thing in one of our damaged restaurants, we find two more broken things. I am pulling for my neighbors and they are pulling for me. We’re working hard, but the job is not nearly done.

That was on my mind as I sat watching the speech from the visitors’ gallery Tuesday evening. I was lucky to sit right next to First Lady Jill Biden’s box, which had Paul Pelosi, Bono and Tyre Nichols’ parents in attendance. I found it very emotional when President Biden spoke of Tyre and how parents of color feel compelled to have “the talk” with their children to try to keep them safe. It was hard for me to even look at Tyre’s parents because as a father, I can’t imagine their loss.

Yes, there was grief and at times anger in the room, but it was also a fascinating and up-close example of our government at work. We tend to forget, though it’s not anywhere near perfect, that our government is there for all of us. This past month, I have been reminded of that fact as I have seen the government respond to our storm crisis.

Chuck Hammers, owner of Pizza My Heart, in Rep. Jimmy Panetta's office in W
Chuck Hammers, owner of Pizza My Heart, in Rep. Jimmy Panetta’s office in Washington.
(Via Chuck Hammers)

The other highlight of my trip to D.C. was a visit with my host, Rep. Jimmy Panetta. I spent nearly an hour with him one-on-one talking about storm damage, and issues affecting businesses such as hiring, immigration, the supply chain, COVID-19 recovery efforts and the economic challenges in our district (which includes my hometown of Salinas). I cannot imagine a better representative for our newly shaped district.

Panetta seems to truly care about us. He asked very specific questions about each of the restaurants, whether they had applied for FEMA loans yet and if so, how that process was going. He has visited the storm damage in Capitola almost weekly, and continues to check in with me on how rebuilding is going. I floated the idea that FEMA should become active versus just being reactive to disasters. Climate change isn’t going away, and pushing so federal dollars could be loaned out to help prevent the next disaster seems prudent. In the end, I found Panetta to be a humble, caring, approachable and hardworking resource for us in Santa Cruz County.

We still have lots of work to do to rebuild Capitola, but we are teaming up to get there. I know I speak for the other restaurants in the village when I say the outpouring of donations and moral support to help everyone get back on their feet has been both heartwarming and humbling.

Storm relief efforts in Capitola are an example of the best of us. Local, state and federal leaders are reaching out and showing up, so are people near and far — all helping to bring Capitola back.

I’m just a pizza guy, but my hope is that Washington can use the example set in our tiny town to work together, like we are doing. I have seen firsthand that it takes a village, so let’s finish the job.

Chuck Hammers is the owner of Pizza My Heart and has owned his building on the Esplanade in Capitola since 1997. He was raised in Salinas and now makes his home in Los Gatos.

More from Community Voices